Tell me if this sounds familiar...
You've just bought a Nikon camera, and you couldn't be more excited to test it out.
But you quickly realize that there are WAY more modes, buttons, dials, and menus than you're used to.
That might make you wonder if getting yourself a bigger, better camera was the right move.
Though it might seem a little daunting now, believe me when I say that it's easier than you think to master all those controls.
There are some that are more critical than others, that's for sure. So let's review five of the most essential settings you need to learn on your Nikon camera.
One of the keys to taking better photos with any camera, not just a Nikon, is an understanding of how to control exposure.
Naturally, that means understanding the exposure triangle and taking control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
If you aren't quite ready to jump into controlling those settings in manual mode, an easier way to exert more control over exposure is to use exposure compensation.
When shooting in a semi-automatic mode like aperture priority, shutter priority, or program, you can use exposure compensation to lighten or darken your photos.
This is particularly helpful because even the advanced 3D Matrix Metering II system found on cameras like the Nikon D7100 can be tricked into thinking a scene is lighter or darker than it really is.
For example, if you're taking a portrait and the background of the shot is much brighter (like above) or darker than your subject, the metering system will tend to underexpose or overexpose the shot.
That's where exposure compensation comes in.
To use the exposure compensation feature on a Nikon, simply press the +/- button on the camera body, as seen on the top of the camera body in the image above.
Then, using the dial on the back of the camera, determine how much exposure compensation you want to apply.
The camera will then adjust one of the exposure settings to brighten or darken the photo as you've instructed it to do.
If you're in aperture priority mode, the camera will adjust the shutter speed; if you're in shutter priority mode, the camera will adjust the aperture.
So, rather than fooling around with adjusting all three exposure settings in manual mode, you can press a button and use a dial to determine how much brighter or darker you want the image.
Naturally, to brighten an image, you dial in positive exposure compensation. To darken an image you dial in negative exposure compensation.
That's when learning to take more control over focusing comes in handy.
Let's say you're taking a portrait of your kids and you want to shift them to the left or right of center to adhere to the rule of thirds and create a more interesting and balanced composition.
To do so, you need to help the Nikon understand that the focus point shouldn't be in the middle of the shot, but offset, just like your subject.
So long as your subject isn't on the move, focus lock is one of the easiest ways to do this. Get a quick overview of focus lock and other focusing techniques on the D3400 in the video below by Maarten Heilbron:
In a nutshell, all you have to do for focus lock is place your camera in single shot autofocus mode, frame up the shot so that the subject is in the middle of the frame, and depress the shutter button halfway.
Then, recompose the shot so that the image is composed how you like, being careful not to alter the distance from you to the subject. Once you're satisfied with the composition, depress the shutter all the way to take the photo.
This technique is more important on lower-end Nikon models like the D3400 because it only has 11 autofocus points. The fewer the autofocus points, the fewer areas you can focus on in the shot.
By using this technique, you can use one of the focus points to acquire focus, but then once that focus is locked, you can place the subject anywhere in the frame you like. In short, it gives you far more flexibility regarding composition so you can create more interesting photos.
Not all your subjects will be perfectly still, so having the ability to take a series of rapid-fire shots will help you to get photos of subjects on the move.
This requires an understanding of your Nikon's burst shooting mode.
Let's say you have a Nikon D5500. You have three drive mode options with that camera - single shot, continuous high, and continuous low.
In single shot, every press of the shutter button results in one image. In continuous mode, however, you get a burst of images.
That means you increase the likelihood that you get "the shot" as the action plays out. Granted, your timing and framing will influence the quality of the photo too, but burst mode will still increase your chances of getting the shot you want.
All you have to do is set your camera to continuous drive mode and press the shutter button.
However, be aware that just because you can hold the shutter button down for long periods of time in burst mode, you don't need to do so.
A better plan of action is to use burst mode in short bursts - 3-5 shots at a time. This is advantageous as it will help prevent duplicating very similar shots and will help keep the camera's buffer (and memory card) from filling up as fast.
If you aren't familiar with how to set your Nikon to burst mode, check out the video above from Robert McMillen.
Our eyes naturally and rapidly adjust to differing colors of light. In fact, it's such a smooth process that we don't even notice it.
Our cameras, even sophisticated ones like the Nikon D5 shown above, cannot automatically make those adjustments.
Instead, you have to help your camera out by taking control over white balance.
Many photographers choose to adjust white balance in post-processing, especially if they shoot in RAW (which you should do too).
However, adjusting white balance in-camera allows you to get accurate colors in the field. For example, notice in the image below how the models' teeth are perfectly white. This might not have been the case had the photographer not adjusted the white balance.
That means that, one, you don't have to spend time in post-processing correcting colors, and two, the colors are recorded correctly from the outset.
The default white balance on your Nikon is auto white balance, and it does a good job of getting colors that are correct - or close to it - in many situations.
But taking control of white balance yourself means getting more consistent results from one shot to the next.
Your camera has a variety of white balance settings that help correct for all kinds of light, from daylight or shade to fluorescent or tungsten artificial light.
Get an overview of white balance and color temperature in the video below from LensProToGo:
Nikon is known for building high-quality cameras with all sorts of features throughout a range of price points.
But no matter if you get an entry-level DSLR or a professional-grade Nikon, sometimes, leaving the camera to its own devices won't get you as good of a result as if you take control of some of the camera settings.
This isn't an exhaustive list of settings and controls you need to know on your Nikon...
However, these four settings will certainly get you on your way to taking more control and getting better images as a result!